Backstage: Theater J's 'Chosen' at Arena Stage; remembering Bob Davis; and more

Theater J's "The Chosen" at Arena Stage.
Theater J's "The Chosen" at Arena Stage. (For The Washington Post)

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 9:24 PM

In a spacious rehearsal room at Arena Stage - now gloriously renovated and renamed Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - something unusual was underway Feb. 26. Theater J's production of "The Chosen" was in rehearsal for a March 8-27 run in Arena's 683-seat Fichandler in-the-round space. This is a big deal for Theater J, which has a thrust stage and 240 seats in the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

Director Aaron Posner, who adapted Chaim Potok's novel for the stage more than a decade ago, worked with actors Derek Thompson and Joshua Morgan, who play Jewish boys in World War II-era Brooklyn. Reuven (Thompson) and Danny (Morgan) were meeting for the first time on a baseball diamond, where Reuven's modern Orthodox team was to face Danny's Hasidic team. Aaron Davidman as the grown-up Reuven stood between them as the play's narrator. Sound designer James Sugg sat at a laptop, weaving in cues of bats smacking baseballs as Posner experimented with how Danny should make his entrance. The production will also feature veteran actors Rick Foucheux and Edward Gero as Danny's and Reuven's fathers.

Theater J's Arena adventure is new. True, Arena has brought in the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" as part of its Edward Albee Festival, and there's an ongoing relationship with Georgetown University's theater department and the school's Tennessee Williams Centennial this month. But giving a small local professional company Arena's largest space is a new development.

"We not only want to produce, but present work from across the nation," says Arena's Managing Director Edgar Dobie. "There was no reason not to marry that idea to presenting local companies as well, because we've got what I like to think of as a healthy relationship with everyone in the theater community here." For their first outing, they "wanted to identify someone within the community who, if he would, would be our guinea pig," says Dobie.

"Nobody knew it meant the Fichandler," says Theater J's Ari Roth. He explains that Arena reserved the right to curate - approve or reject - whatever play Roth proposed to do, and a couple of early suggestions were nixed. Then Roth thought of "The Chosen," which was a hit for his company in 2001. Arena's Artistic Director Molly Smith liked the idea and agreed Posner should direct it.

"We're producing on a whole other scale" at Arena, says Roth. That means Theater J must pay actors according to Equity's League of Resident Theatres scale - a rate higher than that of smaller professional theaters. But then, he adds, "Arena Stage is building our set. We are paying for supplies . . . but Arena has given us a sweetheart deal for covering labor." Advance single ticket sales for "The Chosen," at $86,000 by March 2, were already more than the average show at Theater J brings in, total, said Roth.

Director Posner, a two-time Helen Hayes Award winner whose production of "The Comedy of Errors" just ended at the Folger Theatre, adapted Potok's novel in collaboration with the author. The piece has become a staple at regional theaters. The nuanced relationship between the boys and their fathers - Reuven's a progressive Jewish scholar, Danny's a rigid Hasidic rabbi - is, says Posner, a celebration of complexity "in a world that wants to simplify things and turn things black and white."

Remembering Bob Davis

Friends and fans of Bob Davis, longtime radio personality and theater lover, can celebrate his long life at a memorial celebration at 6:30 p.m. on March 28 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.

The 90-year-old former classical DJ, theater critic and celebrity interviewer, who was heard on the now-defunct WGMS-FM from 1953 until 2007, died on Feb. 23. He and his husband Henry Schalizki - they were married in June 2010, on the 62nd anniversary of their relationship - were avid theatergoers.

"We had a fantastic life. We traveled the Earth. People have been good to us," says Schalizki, 89. "We've seen somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 shows in our time," he estimates. He and Davis were fixtures at opening nights in Washington, dapper in their attire and nearly always surrounded by well-wishers.

"We met every president and [first lady] since Roosevelt," says Schalizki. They befriended Lena Horne when she lived in Washington, and Schalizki sold her a condominium.

Davis interviewed "everyone going back to Mae West, Ethel Merman, and on and on," says Schalizki.

The two, both Navy veterans, met during World War II. Davis joined the USO as an actor after a medical discharge. Schalizki worked on classified code-based communication.

Schalizki recalls when there was next to "zippo" theater in Washington. The couple watched as the theater scene grew. Despite their preference for musicals, "we got something out of every production. . . . [There was] great discussion between the two of us on our way home. This was another [facet] of our relationship. We fit so well. We were so suited," Schalizki says.

The Helen Hayes Awards organization is handling the Bob Davis memorial event. For information, call 202-337-4572 or e-mail info@helenhayes.org.

Follow spot

l A memorial celebration for Jane Pesci-Townsend, who died in August of kidney cancer at age 51, will be held at 7 p.m. on March 21 in the Hartke Theatre at Catholic University, where the singer-actress taught musical theater for many years. To reserve seats, call 202-319-5416 or e-mail JPTtribute@gmail.com.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.


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